Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 22, 2024

Communing with the composers

Vienna, Austria puts on 15,000 music events every year covering many genres, but specializing in classical styles. Since it was near our home-away-from-home for three weeks last autumn, we knew we had to "meet" some of the famous composers who lived and worked there.

We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb in the Alps 45 minutes southwest of the city. Husband Art and I, along with friends Deb and Lou, ventured into the city to see Schönbrunn Palace, the Austrian National Library, St. Stephen's Cathedral, and other iconic sites. But how did we begin experiencing the city's love of music and musicians? By going to the Vienna Central Cemetery!

I know that seems a little strange, but humor me.

The burial ground opened on the day after Halloween in 1874 and covers 620 acres. For those who didn't grow up on a farm, that is almost a section or one square mile! It has about 330,000 plots containing as many dead people as Kansas has living ones - around three million! It is interdenominational, having sections dedicated to Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and members of Eastern and Greek Orthodox congregations. It also has a section for the interment of people who donated their bodies to the Institute of Anatomy of the Medical University of Vienna.

Despite being at the southeast edge of a city of two million people, it is very quiet within the grounds. It is a recreation area for locals who like to walk, jog and cycle along its many paths. Although we saw many birds, it's also a habitat for deer, field mice, badgers and martens.

But for curious tourists, such as ourselves, the main attraction was communing with the many composers, buried in Section 32a. There, we saw the graves of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, members of the Strauss family, Johannes Brahms, and others. There were also graves of prominent orchestra conductors, musicians, singers and performers.

While a memorial to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stands front and center, he isn't buried beneath it. A popular myth is he died penniless. The truth is he had an appropriate funeral for a person of his standing. But at the time of his death, burying people together was the norm and to save space, grave sites were re-used - a practice that continues to this day in much of Europe. So all we know of Mozart's whereabouts is he's somewhere in St. Marx Cemetery.

The composers' gravestones in Vienna Central Cemetery have various symbols representing their musical mastery. For example, Beethoven's monument is adorned with two emblems on its front - a lyre and a butterfly encircled by a snake biting its own tail. The snake image is a symbol of eternity and repeating cycles. Even though the serpent devours itself, it simultaneously regenerates, making its self-consumption and self-regeneration eternal.

Symbols on Johann Strauss's stone include a couple dancing to represent his waltz music and a bat to recall his operetta, "Die Fledermaus," Fledermaus being the German word for a bat.

As we walked along the paths, I could almost hear the strains of Beethoven's "Für Elise" and "Ode to Joy," Schubert's "Ave Maria," Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube," Brahms's "Lullaby," and Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" ("A Little Night Music").

Art had a slightly more creepy "musical" experience. Having wandered off some distance from the entrance, his surroundings were extremely serene. But as he approached one of the graves, he thought he heard music begin. It became louder the closer he got. He said it weirded him out a bit until he realized there was a small solar-powered unit on the grave that sensed when someone approached.

Deb's comment underscored what we all felt. "What an unusual cemetery! So many famous musicians laid to rest there. The memorials for each were beautiful and stood out from other monuments on the grounds."

Lou added that she thought the cemetery was hauntingly beautiful and calm. "A strangely pleasant outing. I did like the restoration efforts being made in the cemetery's upkeep."

Her latter comment was prompted by our watching a woman carefully cleaning a black headstone. When I asked her if it was a family member, she responded that it wasn't - that she was just one of several people who try to maintain the gravestones.

While Deb rested on a bench and Art wandered a different part of the cemetery, Lou and I walked to the St. Karl Borromäus Church, built in the Art Nouveau style. The crypt of Austrian presidents is situated in front of the church.

After all that hard work, we just had to grab a bite at the Oberlaa Konditorei at the entrance to the cemetery. Art and Lou had a fitting lunch of wieners. (Wien is the German name for Vienna and so Weiner means "from Vienna.") Those hot dogs were accompanied by mustard, horseradish and rolls. Deb and I had grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches.

Deb said she had never been to a cemetery with a restaurant and a souvenir shop. "Even their latrines were fun," she said.

The sign on the side said, "Sitting Ovations!"

The following evening we had another "date" with the composers. When Art and I were wandering in the downtown area, we had seen the sign for the "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" concert. The Emperor Quartet Vienna was playing in the Capuchin Church, so we bought tickets for the four of us. Among the works performed were Mozart's signature piece, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik;" Schubert's "Ave Maria;" and a piece based on a Ukrainian folk song. The encore number was quite fitting - Brahms's "Lullaby." It made us smile and sent us on our way with "sweet dreams."

Top (l-r): Beethoven's tombstone with the snake and butterfly at the top and the lyre near the bottom; Strauss's monument has a bat just to the left of his head and people waltzing near the bottom; Franz Schubert is receiving a crown for his achievements; Brahms ponders his music; Not all the markers are for classical music. Hansi Dujmic was a very popular Austrian singer and actor; Mozart's monument is over my right shoulder as we take a selfie. Bottom (l-r): Some unusual sights included a nearly life-size statue of Yu Jianzhang with the tribute "The most beloved patriarch of his family. The dearest soulmate of his friends;" a woman cleaning a gravestone; the hard-to-miss toilets; below, Lou (left) and Deb enjoying some dessert, while above is a memorial for Milan Tija, created and paid for by him, including the line "Tija veliki čovek" - "Tija is a great man"

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home